I have been back from Everest for over one week now, however, the fact that I actually made it up there still has not sunk in yet. Maybe it is because I don’t really feel it – or look like someone who has just climbed the highest mountain in the world. My friends here in Kathmandu tell me that I look as if I have just come back from a Caribbean island and not like someone who has just fought their way up a mountain through ice and snow. I guess they are right and other than suffering from a severe lack of muscle and strength I am absolutely fine.
I guess part of the reason for this is the fact that I went to Everest with a very professional and good expedition leader, Russell Brice, who has been organising expeditions to the North side of Mount Everest for more than 15 years. And even though I knew that Russell was extremely good at what he does it was a complete eye-opener to actually see how good he is.
I have been talking to many expeditions for the past five years and I have heard a lot about how different outfitters operate, however, having been on the mountain for two months has shown me how important it is to go with someone, who is absolutely safe and does not cut corners.
This year, we have seen many cases of frostbite and other injuries, which were partly due to lack of equipment or poor organisation by the outfitter. Many teams set off without radios, and their expedition leaders are not aware where their clients are. Russell on the other hand always knows where his Sherpas and his clients are as he is in constant radio contact with them. Whenever a group of his Sherpas went through the icefall at 2 or 3 in the morning, Russell would get up at the crack of dawn, have a cup of tea with them and stay awake and on the radio until they got through the icefall. I don’t think I have ever seen an expedition leader, who has so much time and affection for his staff like Russell. You could see it in his face that he worried as long as the Sherpas were in the icefall, however, as soon as they were out or back at base camp he would relax.
On our summit push Russell settled down in Camp 1 on Pumori, a beautiful sugarcane-shaped mountain opposite Mount Everest, and observed the movements of his Sherpas, guides and clients. Armed with radio and telescope, Russell would follow our every step, tell us what to do or what not to do, and even though he could absolutely trust his guides up there (who were fantastic) it was good to have someone lower down, who was not busy putting one foot in front of the other. “It is great to know that Russ is down there with a clear mind as up there making the right decision can sometimes be hard for us,” one of his guides told me.
As we had three consecutive summit days (21st May Everest, 22nd May Lhotse, 23 May Everest again) Russell hardly got any sleep during that time but he kept on following his teams. When I was near the summit I could hear Russell saying on the radio that ‘Billi was nearly there’ – he could see my every step from his little camp over there. Knowing that Russell was down there looking after me was very reassuring, even though I was worried that he would turn me around or tell me off for something I should or should not do – which fortunately he did not.
“Russell saves people on the mountain,” said an expedition leader from Chamonix, who was also on Everest this season. And he does. During our time on the mountain several people came to our camp asking for help from Russell, and he was always more than happy to provide it. When we were at Camp 3 for our summit push, a 73-old Russian climber stumbled into our camp after dark crying for help. His oxygen was not working; he had no radio and not even a head torch. Our guide Adrian put him into one of our empty tents, gave him a sleeping bag and some tea and got his oxygen working again, which probably saved the man’s life. The next day he was fit enough to descend to Camp 2 on his own.
However, this was not the only time Russell’s team of extremely competent Sherpas and guides got involved in helping climbers. On May 22nd Phurba Tashi, the head Sherpa, looked after an American climber, who got stuck at the balcony just above Camp 4 and suffered from severe frostbite. Russell together with a few other expedition leaders organised the rescue via radio and contacted the leader of the American’s expedition, as he had NOT been in radio contact with his client.
It also happened frequently that other expedition leaders, and even the doctors from the HRA hospital tent came to our brilliant doctor Monica from Spain to ask for information or medication as they did not have enough themselves.
Other than having learnt what it is like to reach my physical limits, this expedition has also taught me that Everest can be so much more dangerous if you co not have the right equipment. There are very few people like the Austrian climber Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and her husband Ralf Dujmovits, who can tackle the mountain themselves. Most of us need the help of the Sherpas and an extremely competent expedition leader, who looks after us, tells us when the weather window is good, follows us on the radio and makes sure we are well-fed (which we certainly were!).
I think the reason why I am feeling pretty relaxed and good after this expedition is the fact that I was part of a very professional expedition and I can only recommend to everyone, who is intending to climb this mountain, to chose their operator well and maybe spend a little bit more money but be safe and have the best chance to get to the top.
I certainly would not have made it without Russell and his amazing team – thank you very much again!